Despite appearances, China is not a walking contradiction

Despite appearances, China is not a walking contradiction

China’s behaviour often appears contradictory to Western eyes: to discover the truth we need to understand why China’s dialectic tradition confuses us so.

In Chinese folklore there is a creature called a ‘Qilin’. The Qilin, often referred to as a ‘bixie’ or ‘Chinese mythical hybrid creature’, is akin to the Chimera in Greek mythology. The Qilin is composed of different animals and is said to appear with the imminent arrival or passing of a sagacious ruler. It is considered a good omen thought to occasion prosperity, and although its appearance is imposing and frightening, legend has it that the Qilin is a gentle and peaceful creature.

Like the Qilin, China today is composed of a number of different identities. China is at times concomitantly peaceful and assertive, complaisant and disintegrative, engaged and disinterested. Although China is regarded as acting in a hostile manner, as seen by its; increased military activity in the South China Sea its Anti-access/Area Denial (A2/AD) strategy and Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ), as well as oil rig disputes, cyber-warfare accusations and an increasingly stalwart stance on Hong Kong’s reversion back to the Mainland, instances of peaceful behaviour including the 9th Beijing-Tokyo forum, typhoon aid in the Philippines, the announcement of the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), APEC Summit agreements and bilateral trade agreements, demonstrate China is pursuing a multiplicity of behaviours at the same time.

As a result of such polemical behaviour, other countries — particularly those in the West — often accuse China of acting in a contradictory manner. As the Chinese understand it however, they are not. A few seeming peculiarities of Chinese identity which so often come under the guise of the epithet ‘with Chinese characteristics’, require more than the conventional tools in a scholars’ toolbox; they also require an appreciation of how the Chinese understand dialectics, contradiction and pragmatism.

The spectrum of Chinese identity

In 2011, Professor David Shambaugh, Director of the China Policy Program at George Washington University, wrote a piece in which he detailed what he termed ‘The Spectrum of Discourse on China’s International Identity’. He argued that as a consequence of competing international identities, China’s own personality reflects several elements simultaneously. These identities range from a hyper-nationalistic ‘nativist’ group which argues for China to protect its own interests above others, all the way to a much more liberal ‘globalist’ collective which argues China should be more inclusive in its engagement abroad.

Fig. A — David Shambaugh’s ‘Spectrum of Chinese Global Identities’.

This can be perhaps best seen in the official Chinese policy of ‘daguo shi guanjian, zhoubian shi shouyao, fazhanzhong guojia shi jichu, duobian shi zhongyao wutai’, which translates as ‘major powers are the key, surrounding areas are the first priority, developing countries are the foundation, and multilateral forum are the important stage.’ Although these assessments are clearly different orientations, it is understood in the Chinese context that they are not necessarily mutually exclusive. An awareness of how these seemingly antithetical entities can exist in synthesis, without negating each other, is vital to understanding Chinese behaviour today.

Naive dialecticism

The Chinese are generally regarded as being dialectical thinkers; that is to say they are accepting of contradictions and aim to reconcile opposing principles. The cognitive tendency of dialectical thinking is perhaps best understood as the logic of contradiction, it explains that change involves contradiction and only through contradictions can change take place.

Within cultural psychology, the particular strand of dialectics called ‘naive dialecticism’ has been defined as “a collection of East Asian public beliefs characterized by the acceptance of contradiction and the expectation of change in everyday life.” As the proponents of the term Professors Kaiping Peng and Richard Nisbett argue, naive dialecticism in effect “retains basic elements of the two opposing perspectives and believes that both perspectives might contain some truth.” As a result, the Chinese understand contradiction in a syncretic modus — through the unity and interpenetration of opposing entities — in contrast both to Euro-American ways which themselves derive from a lay version of Aristotelian logic, which results in a differentiation model. This holistic and flexible approach to reasoning, epitomised by a naive dialecticism, explains how the Chinese are tolerant of cognitive dissonance and do not feel obligated to resolve logical contradictions.

Understanding that there exists different understandings of the meaning of contradiction is important for strategists and policymakers across the globe. This is especially significant as Western logic is built upon the premise of Aristotle’s ‘Principle of Non-Contradiction’ and Russell and Whitehead’s ‘Law of Non-Contradiction,’ both of which polarise contradictory elements so as to determine which position is correct. China’s ancient philosophy on the other hand, looks at the world in a complementary fashion. This is most notably underscored in the universe’s two basic principles of yin and yang, the symbol of which represents the coexistence of opposites and their ability to transmute into one another.  Accordingly, Chinese methods for dealing with contradiction result in a compromise or dialectical approach — retaining basic elements of opposing perspectives by seeking a middle way.

In layman’s terms, in the West when ‘A’ and ‘B’ are opposite, contradictions must be reconciled because only a single truth can exist, whereas in dialectic terms ‘A’ and ‘B’ can synthesise into an alternative truth, ‘C’.

The etymology of contradiction

The etymology of the Chinese word for contradiction: ‘maodun’, is the basis for enabling the Chinese to exhibit conflicts without contradiction, a reality which accounts for their ability to espouse wholly different policies at different times without such policies working in contradiction to one another.

‘Mao’ means spear and ‘dun’ means shield, denoting the possibility of a cohesion of opposites. If we look back to the historical context of the emergence of ‘maodun’, we learn it is a shortened version of ‘zixiang maodun’ an Ancient Chinese proverb dating back to a fable in the Hanfeizi, an ancient legalist text. The story behind its conception tells of a weapons peddler who claimed his sword could penetrate anything at the same time as claiming his shield could not be pierced. Western translators have subsequently ‘consistently misunderstood this collocation, and assumed that both an invincible spear and an impenetrable shield cannot – logically – both exist.’ Herein lies the discrepancies between Eastern and Western logic. The definitional understanding of maodun is  categorically illogical from the Western perspective ‘because it contradicts Western notions of coherence and reality’ whereas ‘the Chinese perspective sees this as, if anything, commonplace’.

Chinese pragmatism

Finally, although China’s contradictory behaviour has been argued to be purely pragmatic, the Chinese have their own flavour of pragmatism, again separate to that as it is understood in a Western context. They exhibit what Lucian Pye calls a “peculiar characteristic of Chinese pragmatism,” wherein the Chinese conduct themselves according to what is most applicable to them in a given circumstance. Couple this with the reality that there are no obligations for Chinese leaders to be consistent, and you have a model seemingly impossible to understand when viewed through a Eurocentric lens.

This contextual importance of pragmatism for the Chinese means ideology and pragmatism are both flexibly applied depending on the occasion. This illumination of the extraordinary propensity the Chinese have to accommodate change demonstrate instances where Beijing insists that it is acting in accordance with ‘high principles’ when others might think that the they are being pragmatic.

This believed-to-be pragmatic logic in action has been evident in China’s pursuit of seemingly opposing principles at the same time, their exhibiting a discrepancy between rhetoric and action, and also u-turning on official policy. Conceptualising the self in a dualistic manner and utilising contradiction as a facet of Chinese expediency, have both been evident in a ‘firmness in principle and flexibility in application’ strategy used by Beijing for decades. For those unaccustomed to this cohesion of rigidity and plasticity, the very pliancy of Chinese pragmatism causes the utmost confusion in foreign relations.

A peaceful rise with Chinese characteristics

Much like the Chimera, despite the appearance of a rising power flexing its muscles and acting in  an assertive manner, the People’s Republic of China has believed it is has been acting inoffensively since then-Premier Zhou Enlai formally proposed the notion of ‘peaceful coexistence’ at the Bandung Conference of 1955.

Applying the tripartite framework of Chinese understandings of dialectics, contradiction and pragmatism above, it is thus clear to see that despite refusing to adhere to international law,  reversing on promises, proposing an alternative political and economic model to the existing world order, and breaking diplomatic conventions, it does not inhibit China from claiming and more importantly believing it is rising peacefully without these intentions triggering conflict. The international community should anticipate a multiplicity of voices and actions from the Middle Kingdom and keep in mind their alternative understanding of the world in order to effectively navigate conflicting signals.

Categories: Asia Pacific, Politics

About Author

James Tunningley

James Tunningley is a GRI Associate Analyst. He is the Director of the Young China Watchers in London having previously held positions at the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies and the China-Britain Business Council. He is on the Young Leaders Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies Pacific Forum, a Fellow at the Royal Asiatic Society and a Junior Member of the Royal Society for Asian Affairs. He is a graduate of the University of Oxford.